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Posted: December 22, 2009 5:51 p.m.

A sweet idea

Gabriel Khouli/

Work ready: A Garden of Gethsemane resident receives her technical certificate from shelter director Clara Lett and Dekalb Technical College President Robin Hoffman.

Sabrina Ortiz has neither a job nor a home. Sadly, these days, that doesn’t make her at all unusual.

However, unlike many in similar situations, Ortiz didn’t have friends or family to stay with. When her landlord passed away, she was forced to move out of her apartment and into the homeless shelter.

It’s hard enough for anyone to get a job, but even harder for those who find themselves without the most basic of resources.

But this year, a group of middle school girls decided they would try to give Ortiz and Covington’s other homeless residents a leg up.

The students turned the tables and helped educate these adults by raising more than $750 to provide training classes taught by teachers at DeKalb Technical College.

The Veterans Middle School girls group GEMS, or Girls Engaged in Meaningful Service, sold lollipops around Newton County this year and donated their proceeds to the Garden of Gethsemane homeless shelter. The $750 paid for the shelter residents to receive CPR, computer and forklift training from DeKalb Technical College, while an additional $250 provided basic school supplies to the shelter’s children. The students also helped decorate the shelter for Christmas.

Richard Smith, economic development vice president at DeKalb Tech, said the school’s instructors actually donated their time helping stretch the $750 further. The total value of training provided to the shelter was more than $6,000, he said.

The shelter residents who completed the training received certificates on Dec. 16 at a celebration hosted by the shelter, DeKalb Tech and GEMS.

Shelter residents could participate in as many of the training courses as they wanted. A few knowledge-hungry residents, like Ortiz, decided they would complete all three.

"I wanted to get more knowledge with computers because many warehouses they now want employees to have computer skills. I also want to be a nurse one day, so I thought the CPR training would be good as well," she said. "The education was excellent — a lot better than high school."

While a warehouse position may provide temporary income, Ortiz is planning to pursue her nursing goal by going back to school. She said she is talking to admissions officials at DeKalb Tech about getting financial aid, and she hopes to start by taking classes next summer.

The GEMS are co-sponsored by Whitney Jackson and Jessica Jones, special education teachers at Veterans. They said the girls sell lollipops every year and pick a different group to support. In the past the girls have focused on service related efforts for children, but this year they wanted to do something different.

"This year they chose to help adults, because adults are the ones who always help and take care of them. We gave them a list of options to choose from, and they picked the homeless shelter – they wanted to give to people who didn’t have all of the benefits they did," Jackson said. "They’re the brains behind the helping spirit; we make it work."

Homeless Shelter CEO the Rev. Clara Lett said the realization of the training classes was a dream come true. The shelter moved from Porterdale to Covington earlier this year, and Lett has been working for the past several months to provide workforce and life skills training. In addition to these training courses, the shelter also finished a G.E.D. class.

"This means so much to me, because we’re not just giving housing and food to these residents. When they leave here, they leave with more than a full stomach. They have the tools to go out and work with," Lett said. "They can walk away from here knowing they can apply for job, because they have the skills and education."

Covington Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams attended the event and echoed sentiments that she would like to see these trainees continue their education.

"It really makes my heart feel good, to see persons who feel they need to move on further in their education. One of the missing elements in our society today is that our youth don’t appreciate education as much as you do," Williams said. "I encourage you all to carry on."

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